Our smallest friends live bigger than we ever imagined.
Paper Makers and the Silver Intruder
By Lydia Trethewey
Warmth lifts away from the ground as it colour-shifts to blue, sunlight disappearing behind a cloud. Clicking her mandibles uneasily, Yellow approaches the Grass Expanse, feeling wind brush the membranous silk of her wings. Perhaps there is a Brooder in the grass, which she can take home to Nectar and lay her eggs in. She feels venom pulsing into her Vital Point.
At the edge of her vision a dark grey blur, moving stealthily along the ground. Yellow twitches her antennas nervously, tilting her head sideways. It’s a Many-Segments, far away but gaining steadily. Its hundred legs rise and fall in a mesmerising ripple.
Irascible, nettled, Yellow lifts off from the hot touch of dirt and loops towards the nest, where it hangs suspended from the Tin Sky. She lands gently in one of the open combs.
The nest smells like home, a residue of her fellows. Walls built from their saliva and splinters of wood, they the paper-makers, secreting the shape of their world. Legs and wings twitch inside the delicate cells.
‘Home?’ Nectar asks as she climbs onto the rounded top.
He turns one of his compound eyes towards her.
She shifts nervously to one side.
‘A solitary traveller passes, noontime,’ he says, twitching his antennae. ‘Traveller drags an Eight-Legs, paralysed, writhing skin carcass. Disappear into Grass Expanse.’
Yellow flicks her proboscis in and out.
‘Solitary is Dirt-Wasp, home in ground. Vases built from mud, hidden from the sun-bleach, killer of the Eight-Legs. Not have nest or other wasps.’
Nectar tilts his head.
‘Only Brooders, for Paper-Wasp,’ she says.
Yellow senses an acute shift in light through the oscelli eyes triangulated at the vertex of her head. She moves closer to Nectar.
‘Shadow,’ he says, quivering. Danger pheromones drift from his body.
A change in light, like satin, ripples through the air. Above, a shimmering slither peels like bark from a tree off the Tin Sky, and a small body falls through.
The two wasps flinch backwards in alarm.
‘Dirt-Wasp!’ Yellow buzzes angrily.
The unknown creature lands atop the paper nest, writhing as if caught in the silken thread of an Eight-Legs. It’s spindly limbs jerk, body twisting in panic as wings flap impotently. There are too many wings though, six of them, folding out one from the other. Yellow feels venom come to her Vital Point.
‘What are?’ she demands
It twitches feebly, caught on its back.
Yellow approaches, standing tall. Nectar radiates the hormone signal for intruder.
All at once she feels calm. In the unknown creature’s presence, the threat of danger melts away into a chemical repose, a tranquilizer. The intruder buzzes weakly and flips onto its frail legs, eight of them like an Eight-Legs. Panic pricks deep within Yellow’s slumberous unconcern, but her pheromones won’t secrete and her antennae movements are sluggish as if moving through raindrops: she can’t speak.
She senses Nectar close behind, similarly indisposed.
‘Don’t alarm,’ says the creature, waving its cadmium-coloured antennae.
Confusion blooms inside Yellow. The creature’s body looks like a wasp, with an extra set of wings and legs, but it is silvery-white in colour and the bright orange antennae shout danger.
‘We come to find you, kin of the blue dew-drop.’
Yellow doesn’t understand. What is the meaning of ‘we’ and ‘you’?
‘Please,’ the creature says, struggling to stand ‘I am from the iridium-plated wanderer. We search the Black Expanse for other intelligent life. Our home is cold and barren, but you the paper-clan …’
The creature tremors, and its hold of calmness wavers. Fear seeps through Yellow’s exoskeleton. Her antennae twitch.
‘…we know that you are the most advanced civilisation on the dew-drop. We seek refuge from the Black Expanse. You are our last hope.’
The intruder collapses onto the saliva-papered surface, struggling as if against a mighty invisible force. It spasms the way Yellow’s last brood did when the dwellers-within-the-earthen-walls came with their powerful spray which makes the air unbreathable.
Fear surges through her. Angling her Vital Point, Yellow charges forward, burying the sting deep within the intruder. The creature shudders with pain and seizes up, six wings and eight legs curling up against the silver-white body.